Make Nashville great again? How country music is split over Trump

US president Donald Trump shakes hands with country music singer Lee Greenwood as he sings 'God Bless the USA' at a rally in Nashville on March 15, 2017. Mark Humphrey / AP Photo

NASHVILLE // For some in Nashville, Donald Trump is hitting all the wrong notes.

This capital of country music is the centre of a multibillion dollar business based on songs for a predominantly conservative audience.

The US president is thought to be an avid country music fan. While many pop stars declined to play at a concert celebrating his inauguration in Washington in January, country singer Lee Greenwood belted out his hit song “God Bless the USA” in front of the Lincoln Memorial, as the new president sang along.

Back in Nashville, not everyone was happy. The election of president Trump remains a hot topic around the city’s recording studios. Opinions are divided, just as in the country at large, but with about 2,000 country music stations – roughly 20 per cent of all commercial stations in the US – those opinions can reach 265 million listeners a week.

Country music accounted for 10 per cent of all album sales – about 56 million units in 2016. Its top stars are multimillionaires and in 2015 it contributed about US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) to the economy of Nashville and its environs. But as well as making money and selling records, country music artists say the genre has another, higher purpose: addressing social and political issues with lyrics that look beyond the standard themes of beer, women and pickup trucks. And some musicians are critical of their less vocal colleagues.

“The reluctance of artists in the mainstream to take a stand goes back to the fear of alienating a part of their fan base,” says Gretchen Peters, a singer and songwriter who has lived in Nashville since the 1980s. “I happen to think that it would be a catastrophe not to take a stand right now. I think it’s my duty.”

Ms Peters says she sees Mr Trump’s presidency as a danger to democracy in America. “Everything he’s doing is making us less free,” she says.

She and others point to the social activism of legendary country stars such as the late Johnny Cash, who lobbied Congress for prison reform, and Willie Nelson, who has campaigned for family farmers and for animal rights, and at 83 is about to release a new album on April 28 that includes a song about Mr Trump. The song’s title is “Delete and Fast Forward”.

In another musical anti-Trump protest, country singer Margo Price last year performed her song “About To Find Out” – which contains the lines “Well I’ve had about enough of your two-cent words / And the way you’re running your mouth” – dressed in a T-shirt adorned with the words “Icky Trump”.

Country music is “music for adults”, says Ms Peters, and that includes criticising the president if she deems it necessary.

“He is deeply, deeply unpopular here,” she says. Mr Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton received nearly 60 per cent of the vote in the city and surrounding districts in last November’s election.

But Mr Trump does have his admirers in Nashville. At the city's OmniSound Studio, producer Bill McDermott tells The National that the anti-Trump activism within the country music scene should not be taken as a sign that the president is universally disliked in the business.

“Let’s say you have 20 country stars and five of them are against Trump. You can be sure that 12 of them used to be against Obama, even though they didn’t say so out loud,” he says.

Mr McDermott says there is widespread sympathy for Mr Trump among his associates in the music business.

“People that I run with like what happened in Syria,” he says, referring to the US attack on a Syrian airbase earlier this month.

Ms Peters, on the other hand, says that many of her friends in the business are still trying to come to terms with seeing Mr Trump in the White House. “When we get together in the studio or somewhere else, we first talk about Trump for an hour and then do other things”, she says.

Cale Tyson, a 26 year old singer-songwriter in Nashville, says the discussion about Mr Trump is “awesome” and an important part of what country music is about. He firmly believes artists should go public with their views. “It’s bull**** not to talk about it,” he adds.

But both musicians and producers in Nashville concede that outspoken political criticism risks putting off some listeners. Ms Peters says some people have told her to “shut up and sing” instead of commenting on Mr Trump’s policies.

Many in the business still remember the uproar that engulfed country band Dixie Chicks in 2003, when band members condemned then-president George W Bush for his invasion of Iraq. Country radio stations boycotted the band’s songs while fans publicly destroyed their Dixie Chicks albums in protest.

“No one wants to see that kind of thing happen to his or her own music”, Mr McDermott says. Politically-charged comments or song lyrics might be just as bad for business today as they were in 2003, he adds. “People don’t want to ruffle anybody’s feathers with lyrics because they don’t want to lose money.”